Public hearing: Public concerns distracted

Iowa can have responsible tax reform that does not lose money needed for traditional, critical public services that benefit all Iowans. Our focus should be there.

If the goal of a “tax reform” public hearing Monday was to distract Iowans from the massive impact the Governor’s $1.7 billion tax cut would have on their lives, it succeeded.

The media attention on the hearing in the old Supreme Court Chamber in the State Capitol focused heavily on the perennial fight between banks and credit unions — one that won’t be settled whatever happens in 2018, and not the most important issue to be settled in 2018. Therefore, we won’t link to those stories here and add to the distraction.

But, those folks on both sides of the bank-credit union fight took many of the limited speaking slots, so the media focus followed. For their part, House Ways and Means Committee members listened politely, asked no questions and let 30 or so people — including this writer — have their say in three-minute chunks.

It was the public’s only chance thus far to speak on a bill that was introduced two months ago … that may barely resemble what House leaders actually plan to pass … with no disclosure about which of the public speakers may be getting more than three minutes behind closed doors as well.
We should all have been brought to the table long before this, and attention directed to what is really on that table about the future of our state.

Iowans need to focus on the very real threat to public services, from education to law enforcement to water quality to human services that have gone lacking as our state has increasingly directed subsidies and tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, neither of whom need help.

One good resource for all lawmakers, advocates and the public at-large is a series of concise, fact-based two-pagers in the 2018 Tax Policy Kit from the Iowa Fiscal Partnership. Find those pieces here.

If they were listening closely, lawmakers on Monday will have gleaned some important perspectives on the monumental tax changes that are being contemplated without sufficient review.

Lawmakers still have an opportunity to do this right — to steer Iowa’s tax system to a more stable, accountable and fair system that assures giant companies are paying their fair share and the poor are not penalized for their low incomes. Iowa can have responsible tax reform that does not lose money needed for traditional, critical public services that benefit all Iowans. Our focus should be there.

Mike Owen is executive director of the Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org
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Monopoly power without regulation

With few watching, backroom efforts produce unforeseen blows to public utility oversight

Editor’s Note: This post updates a previous post by David Osterberg, “New blows to public accountability,” about features of a proposal to weaken regulation of Iowa electric utilities.

A version of this piece appeared as a guest opinion in The Gazette, Cedar Rapids

170118_capitol_170603-4x4A bill scheduled for debate the week of February 26th in the Iowa Senate would remove the public’s principal check on monopoly power of the state’s regulated electric utilities.

Utilities are permitted monopoly status for economic efficiency. It would be difficult, and expensive, to set up two or more competing electric or gas utilities to serve one community, with separate lines connecting homes and businesses. In exchange for a monopoly presence in a given area, privately owned utilities are subject to community scrutiny and state regulation of their rates and services.

Senate File 2311 would remove a significant share of oversight from electric utilities. Presently the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) oversees MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy. This protects customers, who have no choice as to which company brings them electricity.

It is ironic that legislators would threaten a structure that works and promotes economic development. Iowa has some of the lowest energy rates in the nation (third- or fourth- lowest depending on the year). At the same time, this state has been developing one of the strongest clean energy economies. These features make Iowa a big draw for certain industries — a far more attractive reason to locate here than the tax breaks offered by so many states.

Under the proposed bill, many policies that have led to Iowa’s cost-effective clean energy leadership would disappear, especially energy efficiency programs mandated almost 30 years ago by the Iowa Legislature, which require utilities to file energy efficiency plans every five years.

Without regulation, monopolies could profit by producing more power, rather than helping customers save energy. They could unfairly treat customer-generated solar and wind energy and discriminate in favor of their own energy generation.

Left to their own preferences, monopolies might charge the smallest users more. Alliant proved this in its last rate increase filing. The Alliant plan would have increased the cost of residential electricity by about 10 percent while increasing the mandatory fixed charge just to hook up by 30 percent. The plan was designed to put more costs on those who use less, including those with low-income, essentially penalizing customers who have used the utility rebates to buy efficient appliances or those who generate solar energy.

But because Alliant needed permission from the IUB to raise rates, this rate scheme was reviewed and ultimately not allowed. Instead, the energy charge and the mandatory fixed charge were allowed to increase by roughly the same percentage.

SF2311 would reduce this longstanding oversight on all utilities, shifting costs and risks to their customers. Alliant could discriminate against solar customers by putting them in a separate rate category so they could be assessed a higher fixed charge. This could shut down solar firms and cost many of the state’s 700 solar jobs. The changes threatening the energy efficiency industry endangers even more jobs — more than 20,000.

The forces behind this bill lessen public oversight and public accountability. They would change Iowa law in ways never promoted publicly in the last legislative campaigns.

160915-59170_dox35x45David Osterberg, a former state representative (1983-95), is professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa, and co-founder of the non-partisan Iowa Policy Project.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Rest/best/worst of the story

redink-capitol

Senator Joni Ernst is using Facebook to gin up support for the new tax bill. It is a one-sided picture, to say the least.

So, what does it really mean for Iowans that the tax bill is law?

  • Middle and low-income Iowans will see temporary ​tax cuts in the short term that are ​drastically smaller​​ than those high-income taxpayers will see — and these will be taken away or turned into tax increases by 2027 to help pay for permanent tax cuts for corporations.
  • Millions of people nationwide will lose health insurance coverage as elimination of the individual mandate drives up costs for all.
  • The wealthy will keep more millions of dollars that have never been taxed due to further exemptions in the estate tax.
  • The Child Tax Credit will be extended to affluent families who do not need assistance, while 86,000 children in working families in Iowa receive a token increase of $75 or less — both expansions to evaporate after 2025.
  • Businesses will get enormous, permanent tax breaks with no requirements to create jobs.

Some might recall a longtime radio commentator, Paul Harvey, and his “Rest of the Story” pieces. The points above are the “rest of the story” that you might not hear from backers of the latest tax giveaway in Congress. You might be OK with them and call them the “best of the story.”

Or, you might be concerned about the impact they will have on U.S. and Iowa families, on national debt and new challenges they bring to the safety net, and call them the “worst of the story.”

But they are the real story, and they should not be forgotten as the spin continues.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax cuts vs. clean energy

The Midwest, and especially Iowa, has invested in wind and solar power. Both wind and solar are under attack in the new plan.

Much is being written about the effects of the House Republican tax proposal on different states. By excluding or limiting deductions for state taxes, the proposed tax plan favors states with no income tax — which often is the tax most fair to all of a state’s residents.

Another way states will be affected differently is in energy development.

The Midwest, and especially Iowa, has invested in wind and solar power. There is a production tax credit for wind and an investment tax credit for solar. Both wind and solar are under attack in the new plan.

The wind tax credit already is scheduled to phase out over the next five years but the Republican plan would both speed up the date and cut the present amount of the tax credit. Authors of the bill may not succeed because of something obvious to everyone in Congress, and noted in one news report:

“A report released by Morgan Stanley last week said the Senate is unlikely to pass changes to the tax credit, noting that 85 percent of wind projects are in Republican jurisdictions.

“Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) issued a statement last week saying he’s working to block the proposed changes. He told reporters last year that he would fight to preserve the PTC, saying President Trump will ‘have to get a bill through Congress, and he’ll do it over my dead body.’”

As someone who ran against Senator Grassley in 1998, I can tell you we agree on this issue. Proponents of the tax plan claim wind has to get a reduced tax benefit so that taxes on business can be cut overall.

Oddly, they do not see the same need to rein in all tax credits for all energy industries. The state of Georgia where a two-unit nuclear plant is way over budget and way late being finished gets the benefit of extending a tax credit for its big utility company. I bet our Senator Grassley will point that out if and when the tax plan gets to the Senate.

The Trump Administration ignores climate change and wants to subsidize coal plants. But now the U.S. House tax plan would add to the problem of warming our atmosphere by helping to cut back on the cleanest, safest, cheapest new energy source.

It turns out the skewing of benefits to the wealthy, clearly evident in this plan, may not be the plan’s only problems.

David Osterberg, founder of the Iowa Policy Project

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

 

The Matrix: What if we told you it doesn’t work?

Proposed large hog operations have to show little to get what they want. “Right now it’s almost not possible to not pass,” says IPP’s David Osterberg.

Several Iowa counties are dissatisfied with the so-called “Master Matrix” designed to put standards for locations where large hog operations may be built. The Matrix keeps state requirements ahead of local concerns on this one type of industry.

A state panel soon will hear arguments for a stronger system to protect environmental quality and public health.

IPP’s David Osterberg and Fort Dodge radio host Michael Devine discussed the issues on the “Devine Intervention” program on KVFD 1400-AM.

Osterberg noted the low bar for approval under the Matrix means proposed large hog operations have to show little to get what they want.

“Right now it’s almost not possible to not pass,” says Osterberg, who asks for a “little bit of reasonableness” that will not harm the industry but will satisfy neighbors.

Devine noted the political landscape poses challenges to change on the Matrix or efforts to achieve local control.

“There is a blind defense of pork production in the state of Iowa,” said Devine.

Hear the conversation. Click here.

Scaling back even a voluntary effort on clean water

Clean water requires compulsory and measurable conservation mandates that are enforced and well-funded. The time for voluntary action is over.

Since 1998 the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has led a volunteer program known as IOWATER to monitor local water quality around the state. Recent state budget cuts have forced the DNR to transfer administration of the program to a patchwork of willing nonprofits and local government agencies.

As reported by Iowa Public Radio, DNR will provide initial training and resources, but local government and nonprofit entities will be responsible for continued funding and administration of any volunteer water quality monitoring efforts.

The outsourcing of IOWATER to local entities is just another example of the Iowa Legislature depending on voluntary action to deal with the statewide water-quality crisis. The state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), which was introduced in 2013, also relies heavily on voluntary conservation measures to address the environmental and health effects of nutrient pollution from both point and nonpoint sources. However, the NRS falls woefully short of reaching its funding targets and desired outcomes.

Our state has failed to appropriately and adequately address the largest source of water quality degradation — agricultural practices that continue pumping nitrogen and phosphorous into our watersheds. More than 90 percent of nitrogen and two-thirds of the phosphorus come from nonpoint sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

As we reported at the Iowa Policy Project in late 2016, “Iowa’s efforts in response to the NRS have had minimal, if any, positive impact on the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico — or for the most part on Iowa’s lakes, streams, rivers and drinking water supplies. At best, the state of Iowa has managed to not increase levels of nutrients in streams. There remains a widespread lack of understanding and acceptance of the connection between producers’ business practices and the nutrient concentrations in waters of Iowa and the nation.”

Further highlighting the lack of a clear mandate to clean up our waters is the last legislative session, when the Legislature continued to demand little or nothing of industrial agriculture in cleaning up the mess it has left in our waters. Lawmakers tried to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works board, limited neighbors’ right to complain in court about pollution from animal facilities, and eliminated scientific research at the Leopold Center. They passed little in new water quality funding, and what funding there was merely diverted resources from other priorities, such as education and public safety. (See our end-of-session statement).

We need to start treating clean water as the valuable public commodity that it is. Water feeds our crops, our pets, our livestock, our sports fish, our children, and our employers and employees. “Water is Life” became a popular mantra for a reason: There is no life without clean water. Clean water requires compulsory and measurable conservation mandates that are enforced and well-funded. The time for voluntary action is over.

Posted by Sarah Garvin, Research Associate for the Iowa Policy Project

sgarvin@iowapolicyproject.org

Toxic blooms for Iowa waters

Iowa’s water-quality issues are likely to become more severe without well-funded mandates that are enacted and enforced.

The Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) recently reported on the first toxic algal blooms of the summer beach season in Iowa. Two state park beaches posted swimming advisories warning people to stay out of the water because of the presence of high levels of microcystin. Microcystin is a toxin produced by blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, that can cause health issues, particularly in children and pets.

As summer water temperatures climb, these closures and warnings will become more commonplace. The Iowa Policy Project first published a report on cyanobacteria in 2009 — a year with only one swimming advisory. The advisories have increased each year since and last year there were 37. (IEC has compiled a history of warnings.)

Cyanobacteria quickly multiply into high-density blooms in the presence of excess nutrients in the water. Several research reports by the Iowa Policy Project (links below) concluded that the most significant contributing factor of nutrients in the Mississippi River Basin is from agricultural runoff. Algal blooms have the potential to not only restrict recreational activities in our waterways, but to obstruct access to clean drinking water. This happened most notably in 2014 when a water treatment plant in Toledo, Ohio, warned its 500,000 customers not to use water from the tap because algae blooms surrounded water intakes at its Lake Erie source. The catastrophic algal bloom prompted the mayor to declare a state of emergency, as the city was forced to find alternative sources of drinking water.

Clean drinking water in Iowa is already threatened because of high nutrient concentrations in our waterways. The recent Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) lawsuit against three counties in north central Iowa highlighted this very problem. The DMWW must spend increasing sums to remove nutrients from the water obtained from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers — so much it will now build a new nitrate removal facility. The nitrate present in these source rivers is primarily from agricultural runoff coming from the three counties named in the suit.

The magnitude of Iowa’s water quality issues cannot be overstated and the data we have show that these issues are only likely to deepen in severity without well-funded mandates for water quality that not only are enacted, but enforced. Voluntary conservation measures will not clean up our lakes, beaches, rivers and drinking water sources. If Iowa legislators are serious about luring businesses, jobs and families to this state, then it is time to make sure state revenues can support the protection of the very resource that supports our quality of life.

Sarah Garvin, research associate for the Iowa Policy Project
sgarvin@iowapolicyproject.org

 

 

Related IPP Reports:

Scum in Iowa’s Water: Dealing with the Impact of Excess Nutrients,” December 2009, Andrea Heffernan and Teresa Galluzzo

Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm,” September 2010, Andrea Heffernan, Teresa Galluzzo and Will Hoyer

A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution,” July 2014, David Osterberg and Aaron Kline

Saving Resources: Manure and Water,” May 2016, David Osterberg, Nick Fetty and Nathan Wong